It's been a whopping 25 years since Steve Spielberg's last real children's film, when he disappointed children and adults alike with his Peter Pan re-imagining Hook. After a long period of going back and forth between monochromatic, Oscar-wary history lessons and crowd-pleasing blockbuster fare, Hollywood's most famous director is back trying to win the hearts of both children and parents as he did with one of his most celebrated movies, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), with a passion project he's been considering for some time. He also reunites with E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who sadly died last year) to bring the notoriously tricky world of Roald Dahl to the big screen.
Insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) spends her nights either beneath her blanket pouring over books or roaming the halls of the orphanage looking for anything that may spark her interest. While up late one night, she shushes some drunks staggering home from the pub, only to glimpse the shadow of what looks like a giant hooded man. The figure gets closer and closer, until a giant hand reaches in through her window and whisks her and blanket both across the country. The mysterious monstrosity turns out to be a giant indeed, but a big, friendly one, played in motion capture by a wonderful Mark Rylance. The BFG is the runt of his litter in Giant Country, and is routinely bullied by the much bigger fellow giants that lurk on the land outside of his cave. The two outcasts will form a bond that will see their two worlds unite.
Brian Cosgrove's beloved animated film from 1989 was incredibly close to the book, and was said to be a personal favourite of Dahl's. Yet a faithful page-to-screen adaptation of a terrific piece of literature doesn't necessarily result in a good movie, and having watched the cartoon relatively recently, I didn't find it very entertaining. Spielberg's update also stays quite close to Dahl's text, and it suffers from the same saggy narrative as the much shorter movie that came before did. Anyone hoping to keep their children entertained for a couple of hours may find them getting restless, as Spielberg is happy to take his time exploring this strange land. It's a decision I applaud, but it doesn't excuse an incredibly slow middle-section, as the BFG introduces the world of dream-catching, snozzcumbers and the joys of farting to the precocious Sophie, complete with rambling monologues and existential pondering.
There's also a noticeable reluctance to explore the darker areas of the book, with the giants (played like Cockney bouncers by the likes of Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader) failing to live up their names (Fleslumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecruncher). They instead come across as bullying buffoons and not the child-munching monsters they are meant to be. If there is one thing the film gets totally right, it is with the casting of Rylance, fresh off his Oscar win for Bridge of Spies (2015). The wonderful effects by Weta perfectly capture the warmth and innocence of his performance, and his line delivery is pitch- perfect. Spielberg also goes all-out with Dahl's bizarre finale, which sees Sophie recruit the Queen herself (Penelope Wilton) and her trusted butler Mr. Tibbs (Rafe Spall) in her fight against the evil giants of Giant Country. It's a truly weird climax, but it's the only consistently funny part of the movie. Not a total failure by any stretch of the imagination, but a somewhat rambling, timid effort to bring a difficult book to the screen.